‘Billy Elliot’ lands at Kennedy Center in well-made dancing shoes

December 15, 2011

“Billy Elliot the Musical” moves — and MOVES. When one of the astonishing young dance machines who rotate in the role of Billy is pirouetting or tapping, executing kickboxing steps or literally soaring above the stage, you can’t help but be swept up into Billy’s life and the surefire story that propels this vibrant Tony-winning production, the tale of an 11-year-old boy who wants to excel, against all odds, in the corps de ballet.

The show, which formally opened Thursday night for a month-long stay in the Kennedy Center Opera House, knits dance into narrative as well as, if not better than, any musical has for a long time, perhaps since “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” in the mid-’90s and, before that, the 1975 “A Chorus Line.” It’s with its arms and legs that “Billy Elliot” is most assured and inventive, as demonstrated in a superb first-act number, “Solidarity,” in which the burly miners of Billy’s home town in north England partner with the dainty pupils of Mrs. Wilkinson’s coal-town ballet class.

Choreographer Peter Darling, working closely with director Stephen Daldry, evinces a keen understanding for how the gestural virtuosity of a solo turn or unison dance number can intensify what the characters need to declare about themselves. This is especially true of the ethereal choreography of a duet between Billy (the marvelous J.P. Viernes, one of the touring production’s five Billys, at the performance I attended), and a mature dancer (Maximilien A. Baud), who is the embodiment of older Billy and the young boy’s guardian angel.

If dance is king here, the songs — by composer Elton John and lyricist Lee Hall — play the role of subordinate prince. They are perfectly adequate as support for the movement but don’t often rise above the category of by-the-numbers. (The evening’s high point, in fact, is set not to John’s melody, but to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”)

Hall’s book for the musical, based on his screenplay for the 2000 movie (also directed by Daldry) is of a caliber somewhere between the dancing and music: Although it sometimes veers toward overt sentimentality, it never becomes cloying. Hall’s kitchen-sink treatment provides the actors with guidelines for performances of earthy suppleness, particularly in the cases of the appealing Leah Hocking, playing flinty Mrs. Wilkinson, and the sterling Rich Hebert as Billy’s rough-hewn father, who comes to terms affectingly with his son’s unorthodox dreams.

Among the gaggle of talented children in the show, the charmingly manic Jacob Zelonky takes impressive advantage of the trickiest part, one that could easily congeal sappily into stereotype. He’s Billy’s friend Michael, a gay kid in a provincial place that doesn’t readily forgive young people for being different.

“Billy Elliot” takes us to the fractious era in British life defined by Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose Darwinian politics in the 1980s were characterized by some as coldhearted and by the trade union movement as apocalyptic. (She’s represented by a funny caricature at a party during the song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” whose lyrics might have been fun to hear but alas, even amplified, evaporate in the vast cavern of the Opera House.)

Billy’s quest is drawn against the Thatcherite mission of privatizing industries and snuffing out unions, policies that compel miners such as Billy’s widowed father to go on strike. Billy is doubly cursed: The government’s action is stealing food from his family’s table, making it impossible for him to nourish his aspiration, instilled by Mrs. Wilkinson, to go to the Royal Ballet School. And the prideful miners, viewing ballet as the domain of the elites seeking to bring them down, can’t comprehend Billy’s desire to be a part of that.

How Billy endures, and how the broke village rallies around him, are themes that seem to have even more currency now than when the musical opened on Broadway in November 2008. “You’re fighting a battle that was lost long ago,” Mrs. Wilkinson explains to Billy’s dad, drawing for him in shorthand a portrait of the inequity that has turned him into economic collateral damage. The musical may reductively suggest the miners as heroes as they stirringly descend into the pit once more, singing “Once We Were Kings,” but it also succeeds in evoking a communal tragedy.

The balance achieved by this touring cast, performing in the shabby environment conjured by Ian MacNeil’s portable set pieces and Nicky Gillibrand’s down-market costumes, stamps its work as a finer filter of the show than even the solid Broadway incarnation. (The curtain call, by the way, is a production number unto itself.)

And, of course, a special tip of the miner’s helmet has to go to young Viernes, who not only executes 20 pirouettes as if it were just another day at the office, but also avoids the slick pitfalls and keeps Billy real. If the other four Billys are up to his standard, then “Billy Elliot” is in good feet.

Billy Elliot the Musical

Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Choreography, Peter Darling; lighting, Rick Fisher; orchestrations, Martin Koch; music director, Susan Draus; sound, Paul Arditti. With Kat Hennessey, Cynthia Darlow, Jeremy Zorek. About 2 hours 55 minutes. Through Jan. 15 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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